Case against former Colorado Springs priest goes to jury

Bonnie Olson's cat Dart aka Phoenix is reunited with their dog Paddy Tuesday, July 2, 2013, at their new home in Colorado Springs. The family cat ran away as they were evacuating during the Black Forest Fire and was found on the property eight days later. Olson decided to call him Phoenix after he survived. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Was he a "prime target" for a teenage boy's false claim - or a savvy predator who saw his opportunity and seized it?

Attorneys on Tuesday laid out divergent views of the Rev. Charles Robert "Bob" Manning as the 78-year-old priest's trial on suspicion of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old altar boy drew to a close in 4th Judicial District Court.

After six days of testimony, a six-man, six-woman jury is to begin deliberations Wednesday morning.

The jury was released at 5 p.m. Tuesday after more than two hours of fiery closing arguments. Attorneys in the case dueled over the strength of evidence against Manning and the credibility of those who testified while Manning's oxygen tank purred in the background. He is charged with multiple counts of sexual assault on a child by one in position of trust, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and possessing lewd photographs of the boy, one allegedly taken in secret.

Manning attended the trial in a wheelchair, wearing a suit and tie rather than a priest's collar. He declined to testify in his defense.

Formerly the pastor at St. Gabriel the Archangel Catholic Church in Colorado Springs, Manning is accused of coaxing the boy into a series of sex acts during a booze and pot-fueled encounter in the fall of 2011. He retired in May 2012 when the allegations became public, and after posting $10,000 bond, he obtained a judge's permission to move into a home for retired priests in the St. Louis, Mo. area.

According to prosecutor Michael Fisher, Manning began laying the framework for abuse long before it actually occurred.

The boy became acquainted with Manning at age 14 after sending an email to St. Gabriel expressing an interest in becoming Catholic. After one-on-one tutoring in Manning's office, the boy became an altar server and formed a "close, personal friendship" that had all the hallmarks of a loving bond, Fisher said, including shared dinners with the boy's mother and gifts like rosaries, a Bible and Catholic prayer books.

But as time passed, Manning allegedly began pushing the boundaries of their relationship - in what Fisher characterized as grooming by a sex offender. He gave the boy expensive gifts, took him to get his nipples pierced against his mother's wishes and ultimately allowed him to drink vodka and share in his medical marijuana stash.

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The abuse is alleged to have occurred on a day that both Manning and his accuser had been drinking and smoking pot, with the boy claiming that Manning offered him "a hundred bucks in fives" to dance for him.

Manning's attorney, Richard Bednarski, lowered his voice almost to a whisper at points in his hour-long presentation as he accused prosecutors of twisting Manning's goodwill into something "sinister" and "evil."

He disputed there was anything untoward in the priest's gifts, which included a $3,500 used car, saying the boy's single mother struggled to make ends meet and that Manning, who was previously married with children, wanted to make up for neglect of his own children.

In attacking the boy's credibility, Bednarski used PowerPoint to detail how the boy's statements changed throughout several interviews, suggesting he fabricated a story he couldn't keep straight.

Bednarski conceded that Manning should have intervened in the boy's drinking and pot smoking - asking the jury to hold him accountable for his "poor decisions" - but denied that he supplied the substances.

In his rebuttal argument, Fisher raised his voice to a shout and slammed down an envelope containing perhaps the most damning physical evidence in the case: a photograph found on Manning's home computer that is said to depict the boy's penis. A police detective testified at trial the photo appeared to have been taken in Manning's home, although the boy didn't remember being photographed.

Bednarski suggested the boy had the access and technological savvy to plant the image on the computer as part of his campaign against Manning.

Fisher said the boy had no motive to lie and that neutral witnesses corroborated details of Manning's freewheeling parties in the church rectory.